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Dark Sky Islands

April 11, 2014 1 comment

There are only two International Dark Sky Islands in the world, and both of them are in the British Isles: Sark in the Channel Islands; and Coll in the Inner Hebrides.

Sark

Sark

Coll

Coll

They were designated by the IDA (the International Dark-sky Association) under their International Dark Sky Communities programme, Sark in 2011 and Coll in 2013.

These beautiful short films show what you’ll see on a clear night:

The Starry Skies of Sark from Sue Daly on Vimeo.

Isle of Coll – IDA Dark Sky Community from Ewan Miles on Vimeo.

I’ve visited both islands several times, and they’re beautiful places, and not just at night when the stars come out. They’re very different: Sark is lush, with hedgerows and country lanes, and at 49°25’N latitude its climate is very continental. Coll on the other hand is almost entirely treeless, it’s rugged, boasts long sandy beaches, and lies at 56°38’N. Contrary to common impressions of the weather on the west of Scotland, Coll is one of the sunniest parts of Scotland and so has, like Sark, a high number of clear dark nights.

And it’s on dark nights when these islands are at their most stunning. Now that summer’s on its way though the dark nights will shorten and eventually disappear altogether until autumn, so you’ve plenty of time to plan your visit. Sark has a longer dark sky season, running from August till mid-May, as opposed to Coll’s which runs from September till mid-April, but the nights are longer on Coll than on Sark during the darkest winter months, the best time for stargazing.

Make sure that if you’re going to Sark or Coll for stargazing that you avoid the bright moon. Ideally you would be there during a new moon or thin crescent; at the very least you should avoid the week on either side of the full moon. To maximise your chances of seeing the wonderful dark skies make sure you stay for several nights!

Northumberland and Coll: The Newest International Dark Sky Places

December 9, 2013 2 comments

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced today it has designated two new International Dark Sky Places in the UK, including one representing the largest land area of protected night skies in all of Europe. This brings to six the total number of IDA International Dark Sky Places in the UK, second only to the United States.

IDA is proud to recognise Northumberland  Dark Sky Park and Coll Dark Sky Island for their exceptional efforts in helping preserve and promote dark night skies over Britain.  I have worked with both of these areas as a dark skies consultant, advising them on the process of achieving dark sky status. To date this puts the number of dark sky places that I have been heavily involved in to five; more than anyone else in the world, I think!

The reasons for these areas seeking dark sky status are many and varied. Off-season winter astronomy tourism is one main driver, while for councils the economic and environmental benefits of night-sky-friendly zero-waste lighting are paramount. Northumberland County Council have recently announced an investment of £24million to refit all public street lights in the county to energy efficient LED lights, fittings which pay back the initial investment within 6-8 years through reduced operating costs, and which have a significantly reduced carbon footprint, due to their efficiency and the fact that no light is wasted – it all shines down to the ground where it’s meant to be, rather than into the sky.

Stargazers at Cawfields, Northumberland Dark Sky Park

Stargazers at Cawfields, Northumberland Dark Sky Park

Northumberland International Dark Sky Park

A UK National Park and adjacent forestry plantation encompassing nearly 580 square miles (1500 km2) of public lands in northern England, Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park are the first IDA-recognized International Dark Sky Park consisting of two independent parkland units.

Once at the frontier of Roman Britain where Hadrian’s Wall repelled Pictish invaders, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park now serves as a bulwark against the incursion of harmful light pollution into one of the darkest locations in England.

With today’s IDA announcement, National Parks UK and Forestry Commission England adds dark skies to their portfolio of protected natural resources including the largest manmade woodland and reservoir in northern Europe. Kielder Forest provides Britain with 200 million board feet (475,000 m3) of timber annually.

The dark night sky attracts an increasing number of visitors to the region. Kielder Observatory, the UK’s largest and most active public observatory, widely promotes local astronomy events and activities. “Dark skies and astronomy have become a passion in the area,” according to Heidi Mottram, Chair of the Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water.

As both Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park began to vie independently for IDA recognition, it quickly became evident that two heads were better than one.  “It made perfect sense to work together to protect one of our greatest assets and make it available to more people,” Mottram said.

Park officials hope that protecting dark skies through the promotion of responsible outdoor lighting will increase the allure of Northumberland as a tourism destination.

“Becoming a Dark Sky Park will reinforce the status of Northumberland as an unspoiled destination offering a true sense of tranquility and wildness – a tonic in this day and age,” said Tony Gates, Chief Executive of Northumberland National Park.

Coll International Dark Sky Island

A sparse population and geographic isolation make the night skies over the Isle of Coll among the darkest in Europe. The island adopted a quality outdoor lighting management plan to ensure Coll remains dark for many future generations of residents and visitors.

Coll lies about six miles (10 km) west of coastal Argyll and hosts just over 200 residents. It attracts dozens of bird species according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which owns an extensive reserve at the west end of the island and hosts one of Coll’s recognized night sky viewing sites on its land. Nature tourism in part draws thousands of visitors to the island each year.

“Achieving dark skies status will be great for the island in many ways,” Julie Oliphant, hotelier at the Coll Hotel, explained. “Not only will it ensure that any future development on the island is done in a way that protects Coll’s natural and unspoiled beauty, but it will also help promote winter tourism.”

Fred Hall of the Argyll and Bute Council echoed the sentiment. “The Isle of Coll is a unique island in many ways, not least of which is its beautiful countryside and sea views but also the lack of light pollution,” he said. “I can think of no better island in the inner Hebrides to gain the Dark Skies accolade.”

Northumberland  is IDA’s thirteenth International Dark Sky Park, while the Isle of Coll becomes the world’s fifth International Dark Sky Community. They join four existing International Dark Sky Places in Britain: Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, Isle of Sark in the Channel Islands, Exmoor National Park in England, and Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales.

If you’re interested in gaining dark sky status for your area, then get in touch!

International Dark Sky Places

June 14, 2012 4 comments

The global family of International Dark Sky Places – areas with stunning night skies and exemplary lighting controls to preserve those skies – has grown again recently, with the addition of some huge parks and reserves. There are currently (as of June 2012) 18 places around the world that satisfy the International Dark-sky Association‘s (IDA) requirements.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Aoraki Mackenzie IDSR Image by Fraser Gunn

I’ve been lucky enough to visit 12 out of these 18 incredible places, including the two most recent additions to the IDA family, NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia, and Aoraki Mackenzie in New Zealand, both of which have been awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status this year.

The IDA has three different designations: International Dark Sky Park (IDSP), International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR), and International Dark Sky Community (IDSC).

IDSPs are areas of public land that are near-empty wildernesses, and which have enacted strict controls of outside artificial lighting throughout the entire park. There are currently ten IDSPs.

IDSRs are large areas centred on a dark sky core, a significant area – an observatory, say – in need of protection against light pollution, and a 15km-minimum buffer zone around that core, encompassing surrounding communities. The communities in the buffer zone have lighting controls that help minimise light pollution in the core area. There are currently four IDSRs.

IDSCs are communities – cities, towns, villages, islands – that have enacted exemplary lighting controls to limit the spread of light pollution into their night skies. There are currently four IDSCs.

The following table has some information about the various International Dark Sky Places:

Name Location Park Area Designation Year Designated
Aoraki Mackenzie New Zealand  4300 km2 Reserve  2012
Big Bend National Park Texas, USA  3242 km2 Park  2012
Borrego Springs California, USA  110 km2 Community  2009
Cherry Springs State Park Pennsylvania, USA  4.3 km2 Park  2008
Clayton Lake State Park New Mexico, USA  1.9 km2 Park  2010
Exmoor National Park England, UK  692 km2 Reserve  2011
Flagstaff Arizona, USA  255 km2 Community  2000
Galloway Forest Park Scotland, UK  780 km2 Park  2009
Geauga Observatory Park Ohio, USA  4.5 km2 Park  2011
Goldendale Observatory State Park Washington, USA  0.2 km2 Park  2010, provisional
The Headlands of Emmet County Michigan, USA  2.2 km2 Park  2011
Homer Glen Illinois, USA  58 km2 Community  2011
Hortobagy National Park Hungary  800 km2 Park  2011
Mont Megantic Quebec, Canada  5000 km2 Reserve  2008
NamibRand Nature Reserve Namibia  1722 km2 Reserve  2012
Natural Bridges National Monument Utah, USA  31 km2 Park  2006
Sark Channel Islands, UK  5.4 km2 Community  2011
Zselic Landscape Protection Area Hungary  90.4 km2 Park  2009

 

The Starlight Declaration

I recently attended the Third International Starlight Conference held by the Starlight Initiative near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand. The conference brought together a huge range of specialists who seek to limit the excesses of light at night, and the venue sat in the recently-announced Aoraki / Mount Cook International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) in New Zealand’s stunning south island.

The beauty of the night sky from somewhere like Tekapo is astounding, and the IDSR status will help keep it that way, limiting the amount of lighting that can spill into the sky from the surrounding communities. Under such starry skies it’s easy to understand why we’d want to protect them, but for most of the population of the planet starlight is becoming increasingly more elusive.

To help emphasise the importance of a dark starry sky the conference looked to build upon a document written at the first Starlight Conference in La Palma, in 2007, the Starlight Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to See the Stars.

The Starlight Declaration states:

a. An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right equivalent to all other socio-cultural and environmental rights. Hence the progressive degradation of the night sky must be regarded as a fundamental loss.

b. Knowledge—armed with education—is a powerful vector that can heal the growing rift between today’s society and science and contribute to the advancement of mankind as a whole. The dissemination of astronomy and of the scientific and associated cultural values should be considered as basic contents to be included in educational activities.

d. Control of obtrusive light must be a basic element of nature conservation policies since they impact on several species, habitats, ecosystems, and landscapes.

c. Protection of the astronomical quality of areas suitable for the scientific observation of the Universe must be given priority in national and international scientific and environmental policies.

e. The intelligent use of artificial lighting that minimizes sky glow and avoids obtrusive visual impact on both humans and wildlife should be promoted. This strategy would involve a more efficient use of energy so as to meet the wider commitments made on climate change, and for the protection of the environment.

f. Tourism, among other players, can become a major instrument for a new alliance in defence of the quality of the nocturnal skyscape. Responsible tourism, in its many forms, can and should take on board the night sky as a resource to protect and value in all destinations.

Necessary measures should be implemented to involve all parties related to skyscape protection to raise public awareness—be it at local, regional, national, or international level—about the contents and objectives of the International Conference in Defense of the Quality of the Night Sky and the Right to Observe Stars, held in the Island of la Palma.

Dated 20 April 2007, La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain

Saint Helena Dark Sky Island

April 13, 2012 6 comments

This blog post is a copy of one which I wrote for the Guardian Science blog, posted there on 13 April 2012.

The small South Atlantic island of Saint Helena is about as remote as any place on Earth gets. It lies 2000km from Africa and 3000km from South America, and I’m heading there for eight days this month to carry out a dark sky survey.

Saint Helena, 1815

This survey will allow me to determine the quality of the night sky above Saint Helena – the darkness of the sky, but also the clarity of the stars – in anticipation of the island becoming an International Dark Sky Place, a designation awarded by the International Dark-sky Association (IDA).

Light pollution is a common problem for astronomers living near cities; a familiar orange glow drowning out the light from all but the brightest stars in the night sky. With the spread of suburbia there are increasingly fewer places where stargazers can enjoy an unspoiled dark sky, but the further you travel from urban areas the more stars you will see, and Saint Helena as about as far as it’s possible to be from the next town.

Under such dark skies the Milky Way can be seen stretching from horizon to horizon in an arc overhead, and the heavens are studded with thousands of stars and many nebulae, including the dramatic Magellanic clouds not visible from far northern latitudes. Indeed its location at 16° south of the equator means that virtually every constellation is on display at some time throughout the year.

Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, Akira Fujii/Davidmalin.com

Saint Helena’s Astronomy Heritage

Saint Helena has long been used by astronomers as a site for making important observations. Edmund Halley – he of comet fame – visited the island in 1677 to catalogue the southern stars and observe a Transit of Mercury. The following century, in 1761 Neville Maskelyne, later to become Astronomer Royal, came to observe a much rarer Transit of Venus. (Incidentally, a Transit of Venus occurs this year on 5/6 June, only the fifth to occur since 1761, and the last for over 100 years).

The Dark Sky Survey

During the survey I’ll be using a Sky Quality Metre (SQM) to assess the brightness overhead. This device measures sky brightness in units of magnitudes per square arcsecond (magnitudes are a measure of brightness, the lower the number the brighter the sky; square arcseconds are a measure of area, where one arcsecond is 1/3600 of a degree).

In my back garden in the suburbs of Glasgow the SQM reads around 18 magnitudes per square arcsecond; in the centre of Glasgow it might read 16. The darkest readings come from remote places like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park where 21.7 isn’t uncommon. In the very darkest places the limit of the device comes from the brightness of the stars overhead, and so you can’t expect readings much darker than 22.0 even in sites free of light pollution.

As well as these SQM readings I’ll be estimating the naked-eye limiting magnitude (NELM) of the night sky above Saint Helena. This basically involves looking for the faintest star I can see and reading its magnitude from a star atlas. In a city the NELM might be 3 or 4; in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park it might reach 6.5 or even 7, where the only limit to what you can see is your eyesight.

Dark Sky Tourism

So why go to all this trouble? Well, an extensive dark sky survey is just one of the criteria expected of an International Dark Sky Place. Once this survey work is carried out, along with a lighting audit and adoption of new lighting codes on the island, the IDA might confer this status on Saint Helena. And the drive for all this work? Tourism. At the moment Saint Helena’s tourism is based almost exclusively on Napoleon’s exile there between 1815 and 1821. The Island also has several hundred species of flora and fauna which only found on this remote Island and is steeped in history from the Age of Discovery when it was a crucial staging post for sailing ships. The island attracts around 1000 visitors per year.

The main difficulty for the prospective visitor is travel to the island. The only way of getting there right now is on the RMS Saint Helena, on a six-day ocean voyage from Cape Town, something that may deter all but the most determined traveller. Come 2015 however, the island will have its own air strip, making it more accessible and tourism visits more regular.

The Saint Helena Tourism Association hopes to attract visitors with the prospect of the stunningly dark skies above the island. The concept of dark sky tourism has been growing over the past few years. There are currently 16 International Dark Sky Places recognised by the IDA, including three in the UK: Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, Sark Dark Sky Island, and Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve. These sites are seeing an increase in visitor numbers in the dark winter season as keen stargazers, inspired perhaps by Prof Cox, flee the bright city lights for darker skies.

London Borough Of Ealing Declared International Dark-Sky Reserve: Spoof

January 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Hilariously, I have been “quoted” in a fictitious article on the website The Spoof. This article boasts the headline: “London Borough Of Ealing Declared International Dark-Sky Reserve”!

The police have been inundated by calls from anxious Ealing residents, worried about strange white dots in the night sky

The piece continues:

‘London is an international centre of excellence for numerous endeavours,’ explained Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. ‘It was total madness that Londoners had to travel to the mountains of Chile or to Exmoor, wherever they are, to get a decent view of the night sky.’

So the author(s) of the piece know their stuff: the Atacama Desert in Chile is widely recognised as one of the very best places for stargazing on the planet, while Exmoor became an International Dark Sky Reserve in November 2011, following on from Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in 2009, and Sark Dark Sky Island in 2010.

The article introduces me as:

UK astronomer Steve Owens, chair of the IDA‘s Dark Sky Places Development Committee

again true, but not nearly so widely known. They must really have done their homework on this story. They then put words in my mouth that are entirely reasonable:

‘To be declared an International Dark-Sky Reserve,’ he explained, ‘an area must possess an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights. Light pollution from conurbations is the most significant barrier to this aspiration, and areas in London possess quite exceptional challenges in that respect.’

Ha! Very true. Then the article continues:

As part of the bid for Reserve status for Ealing, street lights were disabled within a ten mile radius… In addition, local byelaws were passed to enforce the use of blackout curtains after dark within the Reserve area. Car headlights and other sources of light, necessary to facilitate travel, were required to be red in order to not affect night vision.

From now on my analysis of this article might read as somewhat po-faced, as I point out their errors, but it does at least allow me to talk a little bit about what it means to be a Dark Sky Place.

The IDA doesn’t require the extinguishing of all street lights, nor black out curtains, nor red car headlights. All nice ideas though, from an astronomical point of view. Just not very practical.

The article then quotes several fictitious Londoners:

‘Since the changes, I have been almost constantly working outside at night,’ said emergency paramedic and ambulance crewperson, Ursula Major. ‘I often point out the constellations to distract RTA and other casualties from their injuries.’ [actually, studies have shown no connection between reduced light at night and RTAs.]

‘Sometimes,’ admitted Leo Regulus, an unemployed young person from Boston Manor, ‘I stop when lootin’ from Ealin’ Broadway ta wunda at the splenda of the Miwkey Way. Last week,’ he continued, ‘I even went back ta Argos ta nick a Newtonian reflecta telescope, init.’ [similarly, there is no good evidence that reduced light at night increases crime.]

Astronomers from across the UK have visited Ealing to avail themselves of its crystal clear view of the heavens. ‘Many initially complained about mugging and the loss of equipment,’ admitted sergeant Izar Bootes from the Metropolitan Police, ‘but the ability to repurchase their kit, or better gear, at Leeland Road market on Saturday mornings has more than compensated for such inconveniences.’ [see above]

Even everyone’s favourite astronomer Prof Brian Cox gets a mention:

The quality of the sky over Ealing means that key astronomical features are clearly visible for the first time in over two centuries. The police have been inundated by calls from anxious residents, worried about the appearance of strange white dots in the night sky.

‘It looks like that Brian Cox bloke was telling the truth, after all,’ said one amazed Northfields resident.

Make sure you read the whole article, but remember: the London borough of Ealing isn’t really an International Dark-Sky Reserve!

 

Exmoor, Europe’s First International Dark Sky Reserve

October 9, 2011 2 comments

Exmoor National Park in the SW of England has just been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, Europe’s first, by the International Dark Skies Association. This follows three years of work by park authorities, local astronomers, lighting engineers and the resident community, and is a huge achievement.

The View of the Porlock Vale from Porlock Hill looking over toward Bossington Hill and North Hill taken by Sean Hattersley on the 27/06/06

Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve follows in the footsteps of Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and Sark Dark Sky Island, both of which I helped to set up.

I first met Emma Dennis, the landscape officer for Exmoor National Park Authority who led the whole process, in 2008 when I brought the idea to her that Exmoor’s dark skies and favourable weather made it an ideal site for a dark sky reserve.

There followed months of painstaking dark sky surveys, some of the most detailed that have been carried out in the UK, as well as the creation of a strict set of lighting controls governing all new developments within the national park.

Amateur astronomers have long known that the skies above Exmoor offer something special – a unique combination of low levels light pollution and regular clear nights, as can be seen in this map produced by the Campaign for Dark Skies.

Best Places for Stargazing in the UK

Dr Nigel Stone, Chief Executive of Exmoor National Park said: “We are delighted that the importance of dark skies, one of Exmoor National Park’s special qualities has received this international recognition and we would like to thank all those who have helped in  achieving this International Dark Sky Reserve award. We look forward to welcoming many more visitors in the future to enjoy the starlit skies at night as well as the spectacular scenery Exmoor has to offer during the day.”

This designation was sought for two main reasons: 1. the park authority, working with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, recognises and values tranquility as a key asset, and a dark sky is part of that mission; and 2. there is a real opportunity for Exmoor National Park to extend its tourist season right through the winter months using the dark skies to attract astrotourism, something already being done by Sark and Galloway Forest Park.

Exmoor’s designation now means that the UK has a “full-house” of IDA designations – the only country in the world to have this – in that it has a Dark Sky Park (Galloway Forest Park), a Dark Sky Community (Sark) and a Dark Sky Reserve (Exmoor). The differences between these designations are important. The Dark Sky Park designation is intended for parks with little or no population (the model being US National Parks). Dark Sky Community status is aimed at communities – towns, cities, islands – that want to preserve their night sky. And Dark Sky Reserve status, while meant for large parks also, allows communities to exists within the Reserve, surrounding a dark sky core, which is strictly protected, while public engagement and awareness raising of the issues of light pollution spreads from that core to the surrounding reserve.

Congratulations to all at Exmoor National Park, especially Emma Dennis, who had the vision to make this possible, who have protected Exmoor’s skies from light pollution and preserved them for future generations of stargazers.

 Dark Sky Place  Designation  Date Achieved Area Dark Sky Readings (SQM-L)
 Galloway Forest Park  International Dark Sky Park  Nov 2009  780 km2  21.3 – 21.9
 Sark, Channel Islands  International Dark Sky Community  Jan 2011  6 km2  21.3 – 21.4
 Exmoor National Park  International Dark Sky Reserve  Oct 2011  692 km2  21.2 – 21.8

You can read the press release from Exmoor National Park Authority here.

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